Caitlin Fowler

December 2019 Trainee Spotlight

Caitlin FowlerName of Supervisor: Jamie Near

Degree: Graduate Student – PhD

Year of Study: Year 3

Program of Study: Biological and Biomedical Engineering

Why did you choose to come to the Douglas?

Joining a lab at the Douglas was actually a bit of an accident. Initially when I looked at my current prof’s profile (Dr. Jamie Near) on the McGill website I didn’t see any projects I was interested in. Jamie’s background is in nuclear physics and much of his research description was based on method and hardware development for medical imaging, work I have zero background in. It was lucky for me that he saw my grad school application and noticed I had done some Alzheimer’s disease research, a topic that he had just gotten funding for and hadn’t yet added to his profile. I ended up interviewing with him and his lab and his students were so excited by their work that I couldn’t help but want to see what all the fuss was about. That and he said I could potentially join his hockey league as their first female goalie so there was extracurricular incentive too.

What did you do before coming to the Douglas?

I studied Biochemistry at the University of Ottawa and split my time between school work, working as a lifeguard/first aid instructor, and playing varsity hockey. In my last year at OttawaU I completed an Honours project studying Alzheimer’s disease under the supervision of Dr. Steffany Bennett, whose lab studies neurodegenerative disease using neurolipidomics (it’s a very cool and unique field of research, definitely worth a google!). At the end of that year I was given the opportunity to participate in a proposal-based science competition run by Scinapse and Western University. The combination of these two research experiences solidified my desire to pursue science at the graduate level! Plus I had heard that grad school conferences offered awesome opportunities to travel, something I hadn’t done much of prior to my Masters and PhD. Since joining the Douglas I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Paris and Utrecht, and hopefully I’ll be off to Australia next April!

Sell us your research:

With no effective treatments or definitive means of diagnosis we are firmly in the dark when it comes to understanding Alzheimer’s disease (AD). But what if we could peek into the diseased brain to shed light on which areas are affected and could be targeted with drugs? Medical imaging provides this unique window into the brain; I use imaging techniques to study how brain structure and chemistry change over time in rats genetically engineered to have AD, and how a common pain reliever may double as a treatment.

What excites you most about your research?

What excites me most is how interdisciplinary my research is. The project employs non-invasive MR techniques including structural MR Imaging (MRI) and Spectroscopy (MRS) to monitor longitudinal changes in neuroanatomy and neurotransmitter levels in the hippocampus of the TgF344-AD rat model of AD, both as the disease progresses and under treatment conditions. This project integrates concepts rooted in biochemistry, neuroscience, and medical physics, among others, which has exposed me to a diverse knowledge base and allowed me to develop a wide range of skills. I’m always learning, and as nerdy as it is, that makes me very happy!

If you could go back in time and give your “younger self” advice, what would you do differently?

I would tell my younger self to set up informational interviews earlier on in my career. Networking has given me every single opportunity in science I’ve ever had, from my first lab internship to science communication publications. People just want to help, and whether that’s some form of mentorship or job opportunity, it’s all useful experience and time well-spent. Additionally, I would tell myself to branch out more in terms of what I pursued at the scientific level, both in terms of subject matter but also regarding extracurricular opportunities. In my final year of undergrad I chose to participate in a written research proposal competition, and my team and I came up with an idea that none of us had any experience in whatsoever. Not only did we actually end up winning the competition, but we all learned so much more than if we had stuck with science that we already knew and understood. I wish I had participated in things like this earlier on in my research career so I could have exposed myself to more people, topics, and opportunities! I’m not saying I would tell myself to “sign up for everything” but maybe “sign up for more diverse things”.

Do you have any additional experiences or advice that you’d like to share with prospective Douglas trainees?

  1. Expose yourself to diverse science: this can be in the form of diverse topics, forms of communication (academic versus science communication), and opinions, but most importantly, diverse voices and perspectives. Seek out and amplify perspectives of Indigenous people, people of colour, queer folks, and women, and remember that so much of past and current science comes from a biased and privileged perspective.
  2. Choose the people over the research when it comes to choosing mentors and/or supervisors: kind, honest, supportive, and passionate profs create environments where you can learn and grow as a researcher. Having your dream project handed to you won’t mean much if you’re unhappy and super stressed in the lab. If you’re really lucky (like me!), you’ll find a lab and a project you love!